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Fetish - Fashion, Sex & Power

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Kinky boots, corsets, underwear as outerwear, second-skin garments of rubber and leather, uniforms, body piercing… Today everything from a fetishist's dream appears on the fashion runways.

Although some people regard fetish fashion as exploitative and misogynistic, others interpret it as a positive Amazonian statement--couture Catwoman. But the connection between fashion and fetishism goes far beyond a few couture collections.

For the past thirty years, the iconography of sexual fetishism has been increasingly assimilated into popular culture. Before Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, there was Mrs. Peel, heroine of the 1960s television show "The Avengers," who wore a black leather catsuit modeled on a real fetish costume. Street styles like punk and the gay "leatherman" look also testify to the influence of fetishism.

The concept of fetishism has recently assumed a growing importance in critical thinking about the cultural construction of sexuality. Yet until now no scholar with an in-depth knowledge of fashion history has studied the actual clothing fetishes themselves. Nor has there been a serious exploration of the historical relationship between fashion and fetishism, although erotic styles have changed significantly and "sexual chic" has become increasingly conspicuous.

Cultural historian Valerie Steele has devoted much of her career to the study of the relationship between clothing and sexuality, and is uniquely qualified to write this book. Marshalling a dazzling array of evidence from pornography, psychology, and history, as well as interviews with individuals involved in sexual fetishism, sadomasochism, and cross-dressing, Steele illuminates the complex relationship between appearance and identity.

Based on years of research, her book Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power explains how a paradigm shift in attitudes toward sex and gender has given rise to the phenomenon of fetish fashion.

"Steele is to fetish dressing what Anne Rice is to vampires," writes Christa Worthington of Elle magazine, "the intellectual interpreter of...wishes beyond our ken." According to Steele, fetishism shows how human sexuality is never just a matter of doing what comes naturally; fantasy always plays an important role.

Steele provides provocative answers to such questions as: Why is black regarded as the sexiest color? Is fetishizing the norm for males? Does fetish fashion reflect a fear of AIDS? And why do so many people love shoes?

280 pages, Hardcover

First published November 2, 1995

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About the author

Valerie Steele

133 books115 followers
Valerie Steele is director and chief curator and Melissa Marra is associate curator of education and public programs, both at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews
Profile Image for Ava LaBeija.
6 reviews2 followers
September 25, 2019
Initially, I was pleasantly surprised. The book goes beyond the standard source material of Bettie Page stock photos, the Bizarre back catalogue and wasp waist horror stories and into the world of Polaire, DSC and Rops. Steele's references are extensive, ranging from Mr. Pearl and Fakir Musafar to Marx and Engels. In terms of research, this is a solid work.

There is no denying that this woman is archetypically cishet, and uses inconsiderate terms such as "transvestite" (and, rather condescendingly, "hermaphrodite") pretty loosely. Yeah yeah, Zeitgeist and all that. Still, it became too bothersome to read about even more "perverse" fantasies from "transvestites" and made me feel highly uncomfortable. Furthermore, statements such as "fetishism is almost always a male perversion" rub me the wrong way, describing women as free of perverse want and lust, not engaging in the act of fetishizing anything and perhaps even being afraid of anything outside of "the norm".
As a side note, she needed a better editor. Extremely common names, like Bettie Page, were misspelled, and she talks about a new and upcoming group of creative club kids in New York in the late 90s, long after Michael Alig killed Angel and Giuliani cracked down on NYC nightlife.

What I liked about the book: solid effort, great resources, psychoanalytic theory from Kaplan to Lacan, interesting subject matter.

Would only recommend to those really into corsetry, shoe fetishism etc.: too lengthy for a more general audience.
Profile Image for SHIP (formerly The CSPH).
46 reviews101 followers
March 3, 2013
Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power explores the link between fashion and the expression of sexuality—not only sexual behavior, but also gender identity.

The 19th century sexologist Richard Von Krafft-Ebing defined fetishism as “the association of lust with the idea of certain portions of female person, or with certain articles of female attire.” Rejecting the idea that only men can have fetishes, Steele believes that fetishism is best understood on a continuum: from a slight preference for certain kinds of partners, sexual stimuli, or sexual activity, all the way to specific stimuli being strictly necessary for arousal and even taking the place of a sex partner.

Steele begins by explaining the why of fetishes; she looks at fetishes from a Freudian, Foucaultian, Darwinian, and neurobiological perspective, though none are individually satisfying. And even after synthesizing these views, the big-picture that she gives feels incomplete. Sexual arousal is subtle and hard to entirely capture with a handful of broad ideological frameworks. Steele is much stronger when analyzing the appeal of specific fetishes, she explores the particular appeal of corsets, leather, high-heels, rubber, fur, and more. For example, she explains how specific clothing items can signify different things to their wearers. While noting that the corset “exaggerates the hourglass shape that attracts many heterosexual men,” she keenly observes that “the dominatrix wears her corset as armor, its extreme and rigid curvature the ultimate sexual taunt at the slave who may look but not touch.” Steele sees that in contrast, for the slave, the corset signifies and enforces a sense of discipline and bondage, and in the case of male slaves, a desire to toy around with gender identity.

However, Steele does not merely explain why specific people like certain fetishes, she also deeply explores the historical context and cultural significance of specific fetishes. For example, Steele provides an extended history and analysis of the appropriation of leather by the mainstream fashion community and how people with a leather fetish reacted to this. Or, when exploring why feet and shoes play such an important role in the erotic imagination, Steele takes us all the way to Renaissance Venice and Sung Dynasty China.

If you are at all interested in the relationship between fashion and kink, and how fetishized items trickle into mainstream fashion, this is a book for you. It is historically and philosophically rich and is packed with fun and lurid photographs for either your kinky or educational pleasure.
Profile Image for David Veith.
491 reviews
December 31, 2019
Overall an ok read. Was written in the 90s and you can tell as the world has evolved since then. At time almost comes across as a bit pretentious, but that is probably more on me ha. Very interesting things though that I never new about fashion and fetishes.
Profile Image for Jess.
395 reviews13 followers
March 14, 2017
A lot of good info/history and pics, but this author is the worst cishet norm other-ing pathologizing onlooker
1,547 reviews2 followers
January 16, 2021
This came out in 1996 and has stayed on my shelf. I have picked it up a few times and always stopped somewhere in the first chapter. There was something quite old fashioned about the definition of fetish. I kept expecting more to hang a hat on other than a simple description and some talk on what this means.

Maybe part of the old fashioned is even the referents. This all occurred before Pat Califa became Patrick Califa; the Matrix Trilogy; or the last days of industrial and gothic culture. In some ways, even with the more prudery that has evolved, there has been a normalization of the subversive, a widening of normative and dominant culture.

In some ways, there wasn't enough about the history of the fashion parts. The good news is that there is a larger bibliography and that could lead to learning more about the particular area. I guess I expected more and each time I started this book, it was clear that this was not going to be an in-depth exploration but rather an overview with clues.

But it is an okay book as a start, I suppose
Profile Image for Serena.
382 reviews2 followers
February 21, 2023
Considering this book was published in the mid-1990s, it was an earlier work on this subject and did try to tackle a large matter. It was ambitious for its time was probably much better received when it first came out (or not, as it may have been seen as too taboo). Either way, it is now outdated and cringey with its white gaze and horrible generalizations and views and use of the gender binary and lack of understanding of the trans community.
Profile Image for ₵oincidental   Ðandy.
135 reviews22 followers
January 24, 2019
A fascinating look at the intersection of popular fashion & fetishism; some very interesting theories & points of view are proposed. Good read.
Profile Image for Niya.
220 reviews10 followers
August 13, 2014
As an academic Ms. Steele could have produced a dry tome about the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between fetishism and fashion and waxed on about the fact that each consumes the other to create something new and complex. Instead she explores the intersectionality of fashion, fetishism, sex, gender, power and the body in a care, but very surface level way. What she is careful and thoughtful about doing is presenting the fetishists she interacts with (or the case studies she quotes) in a way that retains both their humanity and vulnerability - instead of depicting them as deviant or other - which would have been easy to do. She manages to produce a palatable if teasing text that encourages the reader to take their own deep dive into whatever aspect they find most fascinating.
Profile Image for Cat.
336 reviews41 followers
June 10, 2015
In Fetish - Fashion, Sex & Power, Steele deftly traces fetish fashion from its earliest appearances in niche markets to its counterculture appeal to its embrace in the mainstream. As fashion history's preeminent scholar, Steele navigates this history effortlessly and makes an incredibly complex topic accessible. She concisely weaves together political, social, and cultural influences in an attempt to make the abstract more tangible. While she does not shy away from the psychology or sexuality of fashion, nor does she exploit these things. This is not a study of fetish or fetishists, it is a study of the objects of fetish. The material, the garment, the textile itself is treated as a historical artifact - it is this approach that distinguishes Steele's work.
Profile Image for Anika.
158 reviews17 followers
October 12, 2008
There is certainly a lot of good stuff in this book - clearly Steele, who writes clearly and engagingly, has done a great deal of research. And yet, there's something ultimately frustrating about it - although she has done a lot of research on various fetish outfits, you don't feel like you've come any closer to understanding why people would have these fetishes - you just get a sense that many people do. Perhaps that's too much to ask - after all, it seems that nobody really knows why people develop the kinks they do - but you do wish she had gone a bit further into trying to figure out the why.
Profile Image for Andrew.
7 reviews
November 14, 2011
This book is a nice introduction to a thick topic. With supplemental readings this book is a nice companion to a broader understanding of fetishism through out the ages. It briefly covers many different perspectives on digesting core theory, while the author retains a hint at their own opinion. She completely lets loose in the final chapter, only to leave the reader with information to formulate their own opinion. This is not a one stop shop. I would advise reading Tiger Sprung along with other writings by Valerie Steel to understand her conclusions. This book has merely opened the gates for me.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
5 reviews7 followers
July 27, 2012
Though this was a wonderful examination of fetish in fashion through the years and how it became a part of common society, it did not explain as much as I was looking for in how fetish "is". Much more focused on patterns in history, i suppose an anthropological view, but not one that included more of the psychology as I was looking for. Still a great place to start research in the culture of fetishism.
Profile Image for Fostergrants.
184 reviews2 followers
November 25, 2007
i got this book as a gift and loved the cover...but the book is not really about sex, but more about the history of clothing as a means to send sexual signals. it's the idea behind stiletto heels expanded to a wide variety of clothing. some of it's weird but i really enjoyed the psychology behind fetish fashion. lots of photos. not vulgar.
Profile Image for Adrien Green.
8 reviews
June 25, 2009
I've been working on this book for some time, but it's none-the-less a fascinating read. Fetish is an informed cultural examination of the evolution of sexual attitudes/values and their manifestation in the fashion of the times. The book further explores the commoditization of BDSM subculture in contemporary life.
Profile Image for Lui Ramirez.
8 reviews3 followers
March 4, 2014
Loved how it considers several perspective on fetishism and fashion alike.
A little too much Freud thrown in there for my taste and my ideological inclinations.
Super interesting account of the intersections of fashion and fetish, and an excellent, accessible book for those of us who are nowhere near experts at neither.
Profile Image for Tofu Fairy.
174 reviews4 followers
September 17, 2011
this was an interesting book but out of date in a lot of ways. written in 1996, a lot of the "fashion" and "style" tidbits are old. The psychology behind the fetish fashion is still relevant though. its a good read. reads a bit like a textbook for my taste but I did enjoy it.
Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews

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